Wednesday, 15 May 2013


More on MG history (TC above). Successive managements were probably right curbing MG works racing teams. Research recalled the follies of the British motorcycle industry of the 1950s, which believed all it had to do was win TT races to secure customer loyalty. Manufacturers like Norton were profligate on racing, penurious over developing new models, and while creating the best racing motorcycles in the world neglected road bikes. BSA, Triumph, AJS, Matchless and Norton made machines that vibrated and leaked oil. The Japanese produced better, faster, well-equipped designs that ran smoothly and looked great with oil-tight exquisitely cast engines. The British firms were bankrupted in the space of a few years.

The British refused to believe that the Japanese were ever going to make anything except small-capacity machines. A book by Bert Hopwood, “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?” published in 1981 by Haynes was a work of what seemed at the time an endangered species, an articulate motorcycle engineer. Hopwood spent a lifetime designing amongst other successful machines the Ariel Square Four and Norton Dominator. He recalled vividly how the management of Norton, Triumph, BSA, and Associated Motorcycles sat back complacently as their industry collapsed.

“By the early 1960s,” wrote Hopwood, “Honda and other Japanese manufacturers, having dominated world motorcycle markets in the small capacity classes, were adjusting their sights and marketing excellent machines of medium capacity. I shall never understand the attitude of Jack Sangster, chairman of BSA, and Edward Turner, the Triumph designer (Turner's great vertical twin, below), to the threat. They were sought after by the press for their reactions to the growing strength of our Japanese competitors. Turner made statements many times, that the British motorcycle industry could count itself fortunate in having the Japs selling large numbers of very small machines, for they were training young riders, many of whom would graduate to larger ones, which he made so well. They formed a lucrative market that had become the backbone of our industry. He said there would be no profit in very small motorcycles so there was no point in entering that market.”

Hopwood warned Turner, whom he disparaged, that any industry that could make small bikes profitably was clearly capable of making more money out of big ones. “I had bitter arguments with Turner. I could not understand why members of the Board did not challenge him.” Hopwood blamed the Triumph management for “foggy” product planning and a total failure to acknowledge the perils.

The analogy I was drawing was how the Japanese had been quick to spot a gap in the US sports car market when Lord Stokes rather stupidly axed the Austin-Healey (above), and refused to spend money at MG. Along came the Datsun 240Z and its successors to grab the dollars we seemed to be turning our backs on. The same went for the splendidly successful Mazda MX-5 following the collapse of MG.

Hopwood’s view on Turner was probably unfair. He was deeply admired by the astute Sir William Lyons, who proposed a partnership in 1944, and designed the V8 engine later adopted by Jaguar.

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